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How to Choose the Right Tool for the Job

You may wonder why you would ever need to know what tools a developer uses to build an eLearning module for you. After all, you don't have to concern yourself with what language a programmer uses to build a piece of commercial software or the web browser you're using. You don't need to care about what software someone uses to create illustrations, photographs, text, and layouts. All you need to care about is the end-result and end-user.

Surprise, the end-result and end-user are major factors in how the course needs to be designed and developed. Using a tool that's not well suited to your needs could result in serious compromises in performance and utility. The good news is that this topic is not as difficult or intimidating as you might think. What follows are a few basic facts that will clear up any confusion you may have or, better yet, avoid confusion to begin with.

1. Today's eLearning is almost all web-based.

There was a time when, because of low Internet bandwidth, most eLearning courses were delivered on CD-ROMs or DVDs. Today, with high bandwidth Internet available almost everywhere, it's much faster and more cost-effective to design courses for display on standard web browsers. Web browsers are designed to display anything built with web-compatible programming languages such as Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). This means that whatever tools your developer uses are fine as long as they produce something that will run on your web browser(s) of choice.

2. Mobile platforms are a game-changer.

Tool decisions get a little trickier when you need to include mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets into the delivery mix. You can no longer assume your user will all have a keyboard and a mouse. It's also likely that a design that was laid out and sized for a horizontal computer monitor will look quite different on a vertical smartphone screen – and vice versa. In short, you have to be more aware of platform(s) your audience will be using and plan accordingly.

The good news is that today's developers have the tools they need to create "responsive" designs that will automatically adjust for whatever browser and platform you have in mind. That's not generally true for older courses that were designed for desktop and laptop computers, though.

3. Flash still lives – but is showing signs of age.

Until the last five years or so, the predominant platform for designing sophisticated eLearning modules was Adobe Flash (originally owned and created by Macromedia). An Adobe Flash program is basically just an element within a web page that provides multimedia, animation, and interactive capabilities that would be unavailable in the web browser alone. A Flash program will play as long as the web browser supports the Adobe Flash Player plugin. Unfortunately, for reasons related to Flash's security vulnerabilities and it being a resource hog, Flash is not supported on Apple iPhones and iPads or the Mozilla Firefox web browser nor is it reliably responsive on Android. If mobile delivery is your goal, Flash is not your answer.

4. The future (for now) belongs to HTML 5 (with a little help from its friends).

As we mentioned earlier, HTML is the language that forms the basic structure of a web page, much like the foundation, framing, doors, windows, and roof of a home. HTML 5 is simply the most current, full-featured version. Practically all current web browsers, such as Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, mobile as well as desktop, support HTML5. Only a few older browsers, such as Internet Explorer 6 and 7, don't. It's no wonder then that HTML 5 is the tool of choice for eLearning that needs to play on mobile and desktop platforms.

Just keep in mind that when developers say they are using HTML 5 to develop an eLearning module, what they really mean is, "I'm using HTML 5 for the basic structure, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for the outward appearance, and JavaScript for enhanced functionality." The final module can be basic and templatized, sophisticated and custom built, or anything in-between, all depending on your needs and budget.

Two final take-aways:

So, where does all this leave you? It all depends on where you are now and where you want to be:

  • If you have an existing eLearning module that's running just fine in the browser and platform it was originally designed for and you have no plans to adapt it to a different platform, then worry not: You're fine for now. That said, it's never too soon to have a plan in place in the event you need to update the content or upgrade the programming. Now might be a good time to do an inventory of what you have on hand and how easily you'll be able to update it if the need arises.
  • If you're starting from scratch, it's almost certain your developer will be using some combination of HTML 5, CSS, and Javascript to build your eLearning modules. The only question will be just how mobile-friendly and customized you need them to be. Also make sure you're clear on what functions you need to have (LMS compatibility, for example) versus which would be nice to have (such as precise timing of on-screen events to off-screen narration).

In short, the more you do today to anticipate and prepare for the future, the better that future will turn out.

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Gordon Lewis

So said a Maestro veteran who has worked with Gordon many times. No one disagrees, but several wish they had been the first to capture it…

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